Chris Froome has struggled to warm the cockles of British hearts despite his hugely impressive ride to glory in the Tour de France last month. His win was so dominant, bordering on the straightforward (bar him having to run up a mountainside with his bike on his back at one point) that it became a foregone conclusion. We love an underdog; Froome was never that. That allied to his general expressionlessness and his Kenyan roots deny him the love that Wiggo, a propa Londona, can draw on.
But a win on Saturday in the men’s road race, Team GB’s first sniff of gold at these Rio Olympics, and Froome, no shoo-in for success in Brazil as he was in France, will zoom up the ladder of the public’s affection in a heartbeat. It’ll take more than one, though.
It’ll be 237.5km of hard work across six hours-plus. It is a tall order for Froome to take the honours. But do so, and start a British gold rush, and the three-time Tour winner’s popularity will soar.
The tough and arduous course certainly soars, winding its way up Rio’s mountains from its starting and finishing point, Flamengo Park, and flashing through Copacabana as well as other iconic locations. Not that the riders will be taking much in other than the tarmac below their noses.
The hills, of course, are in Froome’s favour given his natural love of a climb. But it will be a ride of attrition and is expected to favour Classics experts such as Spain’s Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali of Italy. Froome has never won a one-day race.
The 31-year-old has a brilliant team around him though with great strength in depth in Adam Yates, Geraint Thomas, Steve Cummings and Ian Stannard who will give him unwavering support. Yates could even claim a medal.
But there are one-day specialists who will push him and Froome all the way. Nibali, Valverde, Julian Alaphilippe of France, Rui Costa of Portugal and the Pole Michal Kwiatkowski have a mixture of climbing ability, tactical astuteness and speed at the finish. Bauke Mollema of Holland comes into the race having won the World Tour Classic in San Sebastian just last week and will be a tough nut for Froome and Co to crack too.
Nibali, the 31-year-old, will be a strong contender for the Italians but don’t discount his team-mate Fabio Aru who is a brilliant climber and could be the last Italian standing.
The race will probably be settled over the course’s most horrific part which is the second circuit section called the ‘Vista Chinesa’ which offers an 8.9km climb over three laps then a 6km drop leading into a 20km flat push to the finish.
For Froome to prosper, Team GB probably need to set a fast pace from the outset, kill those climbs and tire out the specialists leaving the sprinters with no juice over that last flat stretch. Froome can sprint, and can be cute tactically as he showed in France this summer, but this another level.
It will be tough. But then the Olympics are meant to be. Pull it off and Sir Chris Froome may not sound quite so odd.
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